The Truth About Welfare: Mitt Romney’s latest ad perpetuates on several myths about cash assistance for the poor.
After absorbing months of attacks on him as an economic royalist, Mitt Romney is hitting back with an ad as dishonest as any you’ll ever see, accusing Barack Obama of coddling welfare recipients (“You wouldn’t have to work … they just send you your welfare check”). Literally every word after the 8 second mark on this ad is a lie, with the exception of “I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this message.” But the welfare attack is an old Republican standby; if the middle class suspects you’re not one of them, remind them that their resentment should be pointed down, not up. The real enemy is poor people, and those who would indulge them. A GOP presidential campaign that doesn’t eventually bust out this attack would be like a wedding band that doesn’t know how to play “Y.M.C.A.”
But since there hasn’t been much debate about welfare in some time, it’s a good opportunity to remind ourselves of what the program is and isn’t, and what role it plays in America today. Needless to say, you won’t get this information from a campaign ad.
What we call “welfare” today has its origins in the 1935 Social Security Act, which provided aid for states to give assistance to a number of classes of Americans, including the elderly, the blind, and the unemployed. The Act provided money for monthly payments to poor children where at least one parent was absent or unable to work. In practice, this meant that the vast majority of aid went to widows and single mothers. The program gradually expanded to all 50 states and in the early 1960s became known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
Then in 1996, the Republican Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which fundamentally altered the nature of welfare. The name of the program was changed to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), with the accent on “temporary.” The new program would have a five year lifetime limit on cash benefits and require that recipients be working or in a job-training program. Critically, it ended welfare as an “entitlement,” meaning that states were no longer required to accept any applicant who met the program’s qualifications. Instead, the money goes to states as a “block grant,” with the state deciding how many people it will serve and how many it will turn away. The number of people on the rolls immediately began to decline. In 1996, according to the census, there were 4.4 million families receiving welfare; in 2008, it was only 1.6 million.